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Hackie: Dead Bird Girl

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When my customer, Suki Slattery, told me that she spent the first 35 years of her life on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I recalled a cross-country trip in the late '80s that took me through the region.

"We camped at least one night on the UP within a short walk to Lake Superior," I shared. "I remember being blown away, really mesmerized, standing at the shore at dusk. It felt more like an ocean than a lake."

"I know what you mean," Suki agreed. I glanced over and noticed her dark, round eyes and shoulder-length, straight black hair — a very 1960s look — that was just beginning to show streaks of silver. "If you boat out toward the center, you can see no trace of a shoreline. Superior is the Great Lake the Native people call Gitche Gumee. I guess that became widely known from the Gordon Lightfoot song."

As we motored in my taxi toward Suki's home in Middlesex, I heard in my head the haunting opus by the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter she had referenced, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald": Superior, they said, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early.

Suki's car had broken down in Burlington — bad water pump — and apparently the mechanic couldn't locate a replacement available locally, so the repair was going to take another day, maybe two. Selfish, self-centered narcissist that I am, this gladdened me for two reasons. First, I could use the shot of revenue during what had been a multiday February business lull. Second, I was very much enjoying Suki's company.

I think it was her attitude that I so appreciated, which I interpreted along these lines: Life will launch its slings and arrows — that's a given — but I will dig deep to find the meaning, love and humor amid the battle. You've heard the phrase "resting bitch face"? Suki's default expression was just the opposite, emanating sympathy and kindness. How lovely is that?

"Hey, is there still a Native American presence on the UP?" I asked. "Like, would they be from the Mohawk tribe?"

"Oh, sure," Suki replied. "There are many Native folks, primarily of the Ojibwe tribe, sometimes called the Chippewa, but the actual tribal members call themselves the Anishinaabe. The L'Anse Indian reservation is located on the UP, surrounding Keweenaw Bay."

"Did you interact much with Native people when you lived up there?"

Suki paused for a moment at this question, her smile taking on a wistful quality. "That's somewhat of a long story, which I'll share with you if you'd like."

I chuckled, replying, "Suki, like a bountiful cornfield, I'm all ears."

"OK, then. Well, I teach English at community college, but when I was living in Michigan, I was a reporter for the countywide newspaper. The editor asked me to do a long-piece portrait of a Native person, and I hooked up with Gloria, who lived on the rez. Both her father and grandfather had been tribal leaders, so she made a great choice for my article.

"I got to know Gloria real well, and we became friends. At some point, she said, 'You have got to meet my older brother, James.' She arranged the 'fix-up,' which ultimately led to a 10-year relationship."

"Did James' family members accept the relationship, or did they feel he should be with an Ojibwe woman?"

Suki chuckled. "Well, I got along great with the children — the nieces and nephews — and with James' other sister, as well. But John, his elder brother, who by that point was taking on a leadership position in the tribe, he wouldn't give me the time of day. At family functions, he basically ignored me.

"But one year, James invited me to the annual powwow and, on the ride over, I struck a large bird that flew into my car out of nowhere. I pulled over to find him dead by the side of the road. The bird's magnificent green-colored head identified him as a male mallard. He apparently hadn't bled at all — his neck had been snapped clean, so I don't think he suffered. So, I said a prayer to honor his spirit and placed him carefully in the trunk.

"When I arrived at the rez, I saw John and walked toward him, mallard in hand as an offering. I knew that the Ojibwe used the feathers and other parts of the animal in tribal ceremonies."

"I imagine that took some guts given how he'd been treating you."

"Yes, my heart was beating a little quicker. But for the first time ever, he looked directly at me and, with just the slightest smile, said, 'You are Dead Bird Girl.' That changed everything. From then onward, he would always rib me, but you could tell it came from a place of affection."

"That's a beautiful story. I'm touched that you shared it with me. And you stayed together with James for 10 years?"

"Yes. He even moved to Vermont with me when I got the job offer here. But a year later, there was an uprising on the rez. The tribal council chief had begun striking opponents from the official tribal rolls to eliminate their voting rights. A group of dissidents had taken over the council headquarters in protest and wanted James back to support the cause. As it turned out, they maintained their occupation for over a year.

"James asked me to return to the reservation with him, and I knew his family would take care of us financially. But, as much as I loved him, I declined. I had already begun teaching, and I knew that I'd regret it always if I gave up my career to go back to the UP. So we split up, and eventually he met a new woman and got married."

"Have you maintained contact with him?"

"Not hardly. But Derek, my son from an early marriage, has remained connected to him. Derek is a successful musician and songwriter, and he says his music is deeply affected by his childhood experiences when he spent so much time with James and the Ojibwe people."

As we got off the interstate and turned toward Middlesex, I asked, "Do you consider James the love of your life?"

I heard, I felt Suki get choked up. She said, "Wow, after all these years ... Well, I guess I've got to say yes — James was the love of my life."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Dead Bird Girl"

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